A lot of “Top Hat” requires suspension of disbelief, from the wide-ranging Idiot Plot to the version of Venice that looks less like Venice than a Vegas-y re-creation of Venice in the bowels of Trump Tower. But perhaps nothing is more ridiculous than the opening little bit about Fred Astaire’s Jerry Travers ignoring the advice of his friend and the financier of his show, Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton), to find a nice lady and settle down. It’s ridiculous because, hey, you just saw the opening credits, right? And the opening credits told you “Top Hat” starred Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. And if the movie stars Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers then they have to end up together. But that’s ok! Suspending disbelief is why we love movies so much, right, or at least why we love certain movies so much, right, like “Top Hat”, a movie that might require suspension of disbelief but still, at times, in parts, provokes such disbelief at its silver screen magic you will smile, sigh and slump all at once.
The characters of Astaire and Rogers begin at odds, which they must, as Jerry’s tap dancing upstairs from where Dale (Rogers) is staying wakes her in the middle night, leading to an introductory shot, where she is lying in bed and looking as lavish as most people do when they are awake and at the ball, sitting up at the sound of his feet on the floor with a Jean Harlow-ish “Why I Oughta…” eye crook. She hustles upstairs to confront him, mistaking him for Horace, deciding she doesn’t like him, though he decides he likes her, which begins a game of back and forth despite the mistaken identity. It doesn’t take her long to fall for him, however, when she goes out riding only to be caught in a thunderstorm. She repairs to a gazebo and, sure enough, Jerry rides up to the rescue, though she initially declines with one of those 1930s ripostes “I prefer being distress.” Even so, he begins to sing “Isn’t This a Lovely Day (to be Caught in the Rain)” and they begin to dance and...
It’s one of those scenes where the movie just sort of seems to stop, where you are essentially lifted out of the movie itself and into a secondary escapist realm beyond the cinema, which might sound absurd because it’s sort of incommunicable. There’s this sequence in “La La Land” where the Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling characters are at the Hollywood Planetarium and find themselves lifted up and into the stars, a literalization of sorts of what they are feeling. And yet this dance scene in “Top Hat” actually captures that feeling more acutely, figuratively airlifting you into the stars. Movie reviews are supposed to be filled with How’s (how did they do that?) and Why’s (why did they decide to do that and why was it successful or unsuccessful?), of course, but I don’t care to know how they did that. Why? Because it felt like magic and understanding magic tricks is awful.
Much of that magic, it goes without saying, is in the dancing. The dancing, of course, is what we are desperate for, what we have come to see. It’s no different than, say, explosions in a Michael Bay joint. But Michael Bay is a buffet style filmmaker, plopping slabs of explosions onto our plates with his ginormous cinematic serving spoons, until our plate is weighed down and we feel bloated before we even eat. “Top Hat”, on the other hand, knows how it to play it cool, to parse out the dancing, to give us just enough but to leave us wanting more.
It parses out the dancing, of course, by virtue of its Idiot Plot, which easily could have become a problem, a series of running time-stretching hijinks with no redeeming value other than to give us time to recuperate from the glory of “Isn’t This a Lovely Day (to be Caught in the Rain)” before the next big production number. Thankfully that’s not the case. Director Mark Sandrich peddles this needs-to-be here fluff of Dale being in love with Jerry even though she thinks Jerry is Horace and therefore married with great aplomb, breathing his supporting characters to life rather than simply having them function as pawns of the plot, allowing Horace’s wife Madge (Helen Broderick) to not simply know about his being cad but look at it with detached amusement, like she always knows she’s got the upper hand, which she does, and allowing Horace’s butler Bates (Eric Blore) to operate on some kind of laid-back plane beyond everyone else. You feel for these people as much as you do for Fred and Ginger – er, whatever their characters’ names are.
Naturally they wind up together for the culminating dance number, which given the lavish setting feels something like a big reunion show at Caesar’s Palace, which is all well and good, and probably much more than that, but, I confess, did not lift me to that rarefied point even beyond the cinematic stratosphere like their dance in the rain. Then again, isn’t that why they invented Youtube?